It’s not who wins; it’s who votes

Whatever your politics, your age, race or gender, and wherever you live in North Carolina, you have a stake in a lawsuit now being tried in Winston-Salem.

The Justice Department, Common Cause and several partner organizations are suing the state government to block enforcement of a two-year-old law, HB 589, which makes it harder for tens of thousands of North Carolinians to register and vote.

The law sliced a week off the state’s 17-day early voting period. It ended registration during early voting, forcing thousands to make an extra trip to the registrar’s office to sign up. It threw out ballots cast in the wrong precinct. And it ended a program allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to sign up before their 18th birthday.

Maybe none of these changes touch you. Perhaps you’ve been registered for years, always vote on Election Day, and know where your precinct is located. If so, consider this:

If the 2013 legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory can write thousands of your neighbors and fellow citizens out of our democracy through HB 589, what’s to prevent a future legislature and governor from writing you out?

The answer is nothing. Nothing at all.

It wasn’t always this way. Until 2013, when the Supreme Court discarded much of the federal Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department was able to preempt state attempts to reduce access to the ballot box. Congress has refused to fix the law and our state, sadly, has taken advantage of that by passing HB 589.

The trial is really about the character of our state government. HB 589’s supporters believe the most important thing about our elections is who wins. They’re willing to manipulate the rules and the electorate to produce a majority for their candidates.

Those seeking to overturn the law, or at least those of us from Common Cause, believe the most important thing about our elections is who votes. We want everyone to participate; anything less is an affront to democracy.

The verdict in this case will send a signal everywhere voter suppression laws have passed or are being considered.

In my testimony before Judge Thomas D. Schroeder last week, I described Common Cause North Carolina’s work to bring historically under-served communities – including people of color and students at our historically African-American campuses – into civic life. I explained how HB 589’s limits on early voting lengthened lines at the precincts last November and how many young people were unable to vote because they could not register during the early voting period.

I’m hopeful the judge will see the case our way. But a real victory will require changes in course in Congress and by Gov. McCrory and his allies. Our leaders in Washington need to restore the Voting Rights Act; those in Raleigh should focus on real problems like sub-standard public schools, mushrooming college costs, threats to clean air and water, and crumbling roads and bridges, rather than on denying citizens the right to vote.

Let’s have elections that let every citizen participate and make a judgment about who should lead. Candidates who truly deserve to lead should have no problem competing on those terms.

Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a non-partisan citizens’ advocacy organization.